One-sentence summary: David R. Dow walks us through the death of his father-in-law, his doberman, and a death-row client he grew fond of (and who had turned himself around in prison), touching on how the dying (and their families and friends) prepare for and cope with each loss.
Pretty much any thoughtful observation of the process of dying will lend insight into life and human behavior, so I think David R. Dow had a wealthy topic to mine here. The question is, how successful was he at using this rich, charged material? The answer for me was "quite successful," but I somehow found Thomas Lynch's The Undertaking to be more moving, and more cohesive. In a book about death, I found myself most captivated by the legal story, and by Dow's commitment to his client and deep empathy (mixed with acerbic personality) in a nearly hopeless battle against the state of Texas.
What is the main theme? The last lines of a book are often a clue as to what the rest of the book was about. Here, I think the last lines give away a bit of Dow's muddled purpose. The ghost of Dow's doberman Winona says to him (a little clumsily), "I'm here to tell you not to blow it, because you're getting another chance." The most important thing I've learned..." Dow goes on to say, "The single fact that more than any other separates us from [the imminently dying]--the lucky from the un-" is that the lucky get second chances. His father-in-law, his dog, and his client Eddie Waterman didn't have a second chance. Thus, you might think the book is about second chances, and appreciating what you have before it's gone. But is that the real point of the book? In my reading, a lot of his father-in-law's story was about how to make the best use of the time you have left, even if it doesn't match the plans you had for yourself; a lot of his dog's story was about deciding when to call it quits, when the cost of living exceeds the benefits; a lot of Waterman's story was about coming to terms with what brought you to the point of death, taking responsibility, and making your peace with it.
The title is a bit misleading. It's not "things I learned from dying," but "things I learned from watching others die." It's a small quibble, though, because in truth we are all dying, and the careful observation of death (which we don't do enough in this country) is what helps us to anticipate our own. Interestingly, I didn't feel that the personal impact on Dow was shown to us intimately. I sensed more raw emotion in his sweet, gentle, comfortable interactions with his wife, Katya, and his precocious son, Lincoln. I got a great sense of his frustration with the system of capital punishment, particularly in Texas, and how broken it is. (This frustration evolves into fury sometimes, and leads Dow to some hours on the shooting range with photos of judges as targets. His rage is understandable, since in Texas it's possible to have your client's death scheduled and carried out before his final appeal is complete.) I also felt his admiration for his father-in-law's strong character and athletic life. It's Dow's feelings about his own death that are not represented here, despite the title.
The timing doesn't work. Dow admits in the end-matter that he had to compress some of the timelines so that they'd overlap. Presumably, his father-in-law, Winona, and Eddie didn't all die at the same time. I think he must have also stretched out Winona's timeline when she's finally admitted to the ER (for liver failure brought on by taking NSAIDs for arthritis). She seemingly suffers in intensive care at the vet, in pain and away from her family all the way through Eddie's habeus corpus and hospice for Katya's dad. So we're totally relieved when Dow tells the vet to euthanize Winona, even though Katya objects that Winona "isn't ready." It takes some of the punch away when Dow has second thoughts about his decision, because the way it's written, we believe Winona was suffering, too long, and Katya was wrong. Also, there are moments when Dow and Katya pop out of the house spontaneously for dinner or drinks, and we have no idea who's watching little Lincoln. It made me think that some of the events happened even before Lincoln was born.
--I'll happily believe that Lincoln is precocious, but he's almost unbelievably mature most of the time, and too wise. Perhaps this also has something to do with the time-compression. Lincoln starts the story in first grade (if I remember correctly), but maybe he was considerably older for one of the time lines, and that added maturity made it into his 7 year-old "memoir personality."
--Dow starts too many sentences with "One thing I've learned." It's only a little tic, but it's distracting and with each new one, a little of the punch is taken away.
--On the eve of Waterman's execution, someone tried to reach Dow by calling both his office and his cell phone, and by texting a meet-up place but not showing up. Dow stopped returning the person's texts, and I wanted to know how common this is--is it a crank caller, just playing around with him? Does this happen all the time to lawyers? Could it have been a person with substantive information? Dow wrote the person off as someone who was trying to do the right thing but far too late, which is as bad as not doing anything. But for those of us with no experience with death row, it made me anxious to know that Dow was shutting this potential information down. Regardless of whether it would have helped Waterman, it remained a stone unturned for us, the readers.